Recently, I stumbled across an online poll cataloging the age at which women first noticed sexual attention from men. Actually, “women” might be inaccurate; the median age was 12.
For me, I vividly remember my first awareness at age 10. I was walking home on the last day of school, eating a celebratory ice cream cone, when a grown man asked me:
“Can I have a lick?”
Every muscle in my prepubescent body tensed. I knew enough to ignore him and keep walking. But even at that young age, I also knew that ignoring him could be dangerous.
It was my first experience of “damned if I do, damned if I don’t.” Since then, I’ve not only grown into a woman, but grown accustomed to a certain type of attention—to my body, my movements, my clothing, my perceived attractiveness, my vulnerability and my sexual availability.
Because I am a black woman, my color, hair and politics are also often under scrutiny. I’ve become so accustomed to it all, I barely flinch when I encounter it.
Sadly, women become conscious of that type of attention long before we become women. We also become conditioned to feel responsible for the way in which our appearance affects others. It’s forced upon us, whether we seek it or not. And we accept it as if it’s our burden to bear.
And it was only a matter of time before this snake-on-the-street behavior would slither online in memes that “charade” as the respectability police. Like most things, they were introduced pretty benignly and, often, hilariously. Lately, they’ve become insidious, a running critical commentary that encourages little to no critical thinking.
Scenario: You’re happily procrastinating and take a brief detour to the ’gram or Facebook. You’re scrolling along, enjoying clever quips and photos of food, babies and vacation spots, when some well-meaning “friend” posts something like this:
Huh? What does this even mean? Scratch that: I know what it means—or at least, what it’s supposed to mean. But why is it necessary?
Aside from the absurdity of comparing Denise Huxtable (the iconic character Lisa Bonet is portraying in the picture) with an equally iconic Nicki Minaj (on vacation), what is the point of juxtaposing these otherwise entirely unrelated women? And if comparisons must be made, why aren’t we making more direct ones?
In fact, let’s try again:
Phew! That’s better. I mean, let’s at least compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges. (I can’t possibly be the only one who saw both Angel Heart and the “Anaconda” video, right?)
To be clear, I personally see nothing wrong with either of the above images—or with women choosing to show their bodies to the degree to which they are personally comfortable. But I do take issue with the rise of these “respectability memes”—and the new moral majority that is giving them traction on the black interwebs.
Truth is, these memes have become toxic and tired, and it’s time they were retired. When women are targeted, they’re especially treacherous, since they increasingly seem to indict us in the most intimate of ways: our sexuality.
It’s a played-out riff on the classic “Madonna-whore complex” and, worse, a new manifestation of our internalized oppression. In the long run, subscribing to these kinds of categorizations is doing all of us more harm than good. Here’s why:
1. There’s an Entire Spectrum of Black Female Sexuality
Like blackness, female sexuality isn’t a monolith; it’s not even binary. Neither is respectability. The idea that every woman is either a “ho” or “housewife” material isn’t just untrue. It’s unrealistic, and we need to reconsider those semantics, as well.
Most women don’t aspire to be either (unless Bravo or VH1 is paying). Even more of us don’t consider “respectable” and “ratchet” to be mutually exclusive. We may actually enjoy being a bit of both. So, the assumption that there is one black feminine ideal is illogical, at best.
2. All Black Lives Matter
If a man should be respected whether he’s wearing a hoodie or a suit, doesn’t a woman deserve the same courtesy? Think about it: You cannot claim to love blackness, black lives and black women, yet deem only certain types of blackness, black lives and black women acceptable. It’s divisive, and entirely defeats the purpose of community building in an era when we all should be doing some heavy lifting. Frankly, I don’t know how we can uplift the race if we’re putting each other down.
Yes, we are starved for representation, and therefore, we have a natural tendency to be critical about the ways in which blackness is represented to the world. And yes, it’s entirely fair to consider certain imagery inappropriate for your own lifestyle. But demanding respect for the race also means having respect for the diversity within it. It truly does start at home.
3. Recognize the Right to Choose
Here’s a news flash: Women are not children. We don’t need to be educated and guided, and we shouldn’t feel obligated to make personal choices based upon others’ perceptions.
Trust and believe that if a woman chooses to present herself in a sexual manner, she is aware of it and has made that choice consciously. That is her body, her choice and her right.
Respectability memes suggest that women are simply intended to procreate, without ever enjoying the process. We can be single, but not sexual beings—because then we’re “thots” (aka “Those Hoes Over There”). We can be mothers, but our value is gauged as much by the suppression of our sexuality as our love for our children (see the nonsensical Kim Kardashian-Ayesha Curry comparisons).
As Jayn Griffith recently noted in The Establishment: “You can look at a woman’s body, but she can’t show it. You can enjoy our bodies, but we can’t.”
For black people—who for centuries were told that their bodies weren’t even their own—and black women, whose bodies were historically subject to the sexual use and abuse of others, these types of restrictions are especially damning. Once again: We’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.
A tip: The next time you see some Hotep-themed meme that suggests that a woman can’t be both eye candy and soul food—or an inexplicable juxtaposition of Amber Rose and Michelle Obama, as if there is not enough space in our collective consciousness for these two women to peacefully co-exist—consider this: Our freedom doesn’t lie in our ability to control and oppress others. We, who are so constantly and unjustifiably policed by others, should collectively pause before doing any policing of our own.
And by the way, how do we know this woman didn’t do a justifiably celebratory twerk at her graduation party?
Maiysha Kai is a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, fashion model, devoted auntie and Brooklyn, N.Y.-based, single black bombshell who recently strutted into her 40s. She is also an expert at oversharing who chronicles her attempts at dating—and adulting—on 40onFleek.